Reaching the Worldly Wise -Acts 17:16-34

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

July 23, 2006

Reaching the Worldly Wise

Acts 17:16-34


This morning we come to an extremely interesting section of Scripture because it not only gives us insight into the mind of Paul, but also a wonderful model of the proper approach to reach the unsaved with the gospel. But I should warn you from the beginning that Paul’s example is quite the opposite of what has become popular in American evangelical Christianity.

Tragically, the methodology of many of the people who call themselves “evangelists” do not follow any Biblical pattern, but instead use the models of modern marketing. That is not to say there are not principles derived from marketing that cannot be used in proclaiming the gospel, but it is to say that there is a big difference between selling Jesus and proclaiming him. The actions of some religious salesmen have greatly tarnished the wonderful Biblical title of “evangelist.” Paul never marketed Jesus. He never became a hawker of the gospel.

At the same time Paul also avoided the other extreme exhibited by some who seem to concentrate so much on what they are saying that they forget to whom they are talking. People who become so insensitive that they end up offending people by their manner. While it is true that the gospel is an offense to the non-Christian, we should make sure that it gospel that is the cause of the offense and not because we are obnoxious.

Paul was sensitive to his audience and tailored his message accordingly. We saw that last week in our study of the first part of Acts 17. Verse 2 tells us that when he arrived in Thessalonica, that according his custom, he went to the Synagogue first to speak to the Jews, and that he continued to reason with them from the Scriptures for a period of three Sabbaths. Verse 3 specifically says that he was “explaining to them and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead.” He then went on to tell them that “this Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.”

Paul understood that to reach a Jewish audience you have to approach them from the Jewish world view. Since they already believed the Scriptures to be truth from God and understood its basic message he was able to start his presentation with messianic prophecy. Unless he could prove by the Scriptures that the promised Messiah (Christ) would have to suffer and then rise from the dead, proclaiming the fact that Jesus had done just that would have been pointless. They would have just understood him to be a man who had received a wonderful miracle from God but they would reject Him as Messiah.


Recall from last week in our study of Paul going to Thessalonica that some of the Jews there had become jealous when a great multitude of the God-fearing Greeks had responded to the gospel. It severely bothered them that this gospel Paul was preaching did not require these Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes in order to receive salvation from sin by faith in the Messiah. Their jealousy provoked them to stir up a mob and cause trouble. The brethren sent Paul away to Berea.

In Berea he also went to the Synagogue first and found the Jews there to be more noble minded because they not only listened carefully to what Paul said, but they then went and compared what he said with the Scriptures. The Bereans were diligent to search out the truth and in doing so came to believe the gospel. That is a good model for us to follow today for it is our protection against being “carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14) that comes blowing through by popular speakers or writers. Follow their example and check out the things you hear and read with the Scriptures so that you will know the truth. That includes the things I teach and preach. We are all better off when you do things because the Bible says it instead of because the Pastor said it.

We don’t know how long Paul was ministering in Berea, but at some point the jealous Jews of Thessalonica heard about it and came to Berea to cause trouble there. The brethren then sent Paul by ship to Athens. A place he will have to use a different strategy if he is to reach the pagan Gentiles of that city. We pick up the story this morning in Acts 17:16.

Arrival in Athens (17:16-34)

Paul Provoked by the Idols (16-18)

16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols. 17 So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing [Gentiles,] and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. 18 And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. And some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”– because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.

When Paul arrives he finds himself provoked by the many idols in that city. It was not the Greek idolatry itself that was causing this reaction in Paul, for he had seen many such idols in his many travels. It was that the city was full of such idols. The Athenians had collected so many idols that it could be considered the gods capital of the ancient world. These people were obviously very religious, but they were also very lost. Paul was provoked in the sense of being stirred up to action. If there was any irritation or anger present it would have been over the tragedy of their lost condition and not against the people themselves. Paul is spurred on to do something to help them.

Paul continues his custom of reasoning in the synagogues with the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, but he also goes to the market place to talk with whoever was there. The end of verse 18 tells us that Paul was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. He went to where people would be gathered and he would speak to them.

Some say that Paul was street preaching, and certainly in some sense he was doing that. But don’t get the idea that he was on top of a soap box on some corner in the business district hollering to whoever was walking by. That may be a fine thing to do, but that also takes a lot of boldness and skills that keep most Christians from ever attempting it. What Paul was doing was much simpler and something any Christian can do.

Don’t think of this market place like a supermarket or strip mall where people go intent on buying stuff. Think of it more like a mall or street fair where people go not only to buy things, but also to meet each other and “hang out” and interact with the other folks that are there. It is not rude in such settings to engage people you don’t know in conversation and see where you might be able to lead it. One of the reasons we go as a church to events such as the “Picnic in the Park” earlier this month or “Town Day” in September is to do that kind of evangelism. But the same thing should be done in the normal course of our lives as we go about our daily business and interact with people. The main reason most Christians do not follow Paul’s example is because they miss the first step. Paul purposed to do it. It was not chance but purposeful effort that brought him in contact with the folks in the marketplace and to whom he could “preach Jesus.”

Among those at the market place were some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers of that city. The Epicureans sought contentment by finding a serene detachment from the world. They did not believe in divine intervention in life or in divine punishment afterward. This lead to a materialistic view of life. The Stoics on the other hand were pantheistic and sought to find happiness in accepting nature as it existed and then finding their place within it. Some of these philosophers are contemptuous of Paul and call him a spermolovgo” / spermologos which is literally “a seed picker.” It was a derogatory term used of someone who picked up scraps. It was also used, as in this case, of a vagrant philosopher. Others present were curious about what Paul was saying. This lead to an invitation in verse 19.

Paul Invited to the Areopagus (19-21)

19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? 20 “For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)

Athens was famous as a center for philosophy boasting such people in its history as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The Areopagus, or Mars hill, is where the philosophers of the city and those visiting would gather to talk. They were always interested in something new, so they invited Paul to explain more to them about things he was saying that were so strange to their ears. This was a golden opportunity for Paul and he took full advantage of it. His sermon is a model of how to properly speak to not only to the worldly wise, but anyone who has a world view opposite of your own.

Paul’s Sermon (17:22-34)

Careful Introduction (22-23)

22 And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.

Paul began his sermon by finding a common ground which could then be used as a foundation for building his arguments that would point to their need of Jesus Christ. It was the prevalence of so many idols that was provoking him to action in the first place, so he used that as the starting point in stating that he recognized that they were a very religious people. The common ground was being religious, however, just being religious is not safe ground because differences in religion are often the cause of war. If Paul attacked their religion they would become defensive and not listen to what he had to say about his religion. If he ignored their pantheistic religious convictions and just proclaimed Christ, they would just overlook him as the preacher of a foreign god that had no bearing on them. Remember that in pantheism gods are localized so they are only important if you are in an area where they have influence. A god from a distant land would have little importance to them.

But Paul had seen something that would be the bridge he needed to gain their attention and build his case for the superiority of Jesus Christ over all gods, and therefore One that they needed to know and follow. He pointed out that he had passed a certain altar that was engraved with the inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” Paul would tell them about this particular God they did not know.

There is quite a story behind this particular statue and one that Paul may have known since he had grown up in Greek culture and later in this passage he quotes from the very man that is central in the story. Don Richardson records the story in his book, Eternity in their Hearts. In brief, in the 6th century B.C. Athens was hit by a plague which they believed was caused by one of the gods, but no amount of sacrificing to the various gods brought appeasement to end the plague. Finally they contacted a fellow from Crete named Epimenides and brought him to Athens for advice. He set up a test based on the assumption that they had missed a god and that this god was both great enough and good enough to do something about their plague if they would acknowledge their ignorance and call upon him. The test involved releasing a flock of sheep on Mars hill early in the morning when they would be very hungry. It would then be assumed that any sheep that would lie down instead of eating would have been chosen by this great and good unknown god as a sacrifice. When the test was carried out a number of the sheep did go against their normal nature and laid down on the grass instead of eating it. The Athenians sacrificed them to this unknown god and the plague ended. Then, not only in Athens but also in other parts of Greece, altars were made to this unknown God as reminder that there was a God that was good and greater than the many lesser gods they worshiped. What they had been worshiping in ignorance, this idol, Paul would now proclaim to them the truth about this God.

Declaring the Nature of the True God (24-29)

Creator & Lord (24)

Paul’s first point in declaring the true nature of this God that was unknown to them was to use a particular Greek word for God, qeov” / theos. This was the only name among the many names for pantheon of Greek gods that was not yet tied directly into the errors of pantheism. qeov” / theos had been used in the writings of the philosophers Xenophanes, Plato and Aristotle as a personal name for the one Supreme God. The true God was different from the various gods the Athenians had collected.

24 “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands;

Paul first declaration was that qeov” / theos, the supreme God was greater than nature, for he is the Creator and therefore the Lord over all creation. The Greek gods were part of nature for they were created beings themselves, often the offspring of other gods. Certain gods were supposed to be able to control certain aspects of nature, but were in turn subject to other aspects of nature they could not control. The true God created and is Lord over all nature.

The Athenians had built temples throughout the city as homes for many of their gods. The temple of Zeus, their “King of gods,” being one of the most famous. The supreme God does not live in such things for He is transcendent. The true God is far beyond anything men could build for Him for nothing man can make is truly worthy of the Creator. As the Lord Himself said in Isaiah 66:1, “Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest?

Autonomous & Source of Life (25) – Paul’s next point in verse 25 is that God is autonomous.

25 neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things;

The gods of the Greek pantheon were served by humans. Their mythologies are full of stories of the god’s manipulating humans to get what they wanted. The true God is autonomous. He needs nothing from man. All that God does for man is a function of His good and gracious character and not to manipulate man into gaining for Himself. On the other hand, man needs everything from God, for He is the giver of life and breath to all things.


Ruler (26) – In verse 26 Paul sets God apart as the supreme ruler.

26 and He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined [their] appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation,

In the Greek pantheon the various gods will war against each other using humans as the means to gain additional territory and control for themselves. The true God is far beyond any of the Greek gods for He is over every nation on earth and not just some local area or people group. The supreme God is the source of creation of all the nations and in turn sets their boundaries in both time and space. We see the proof of that throughout the Old Testament. The great King Nebuchadnezzar had ignored this but he too was forced to acknowledge and praise God “for His dominion is an everlasting dominion, And His kingdom endures from generation to generation. And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no once can ward off His hand or say to Him, “What hast Thou done?” (Daniel 4:34-35)

Approachable (27) – Verse 27 points out another difference about the true God. He is approachable.

27 that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;

The gods of the Greeks were not approachable. They could be near. They could be far away, and if you did meet one you could never be sure what kind of response you might get. The true God is not far away from any man who will seek Him. Paul was affirming the assumptions made by Epimenides so many centuries earlier that there was a God who was both great and good who would deal with them mercifully even though they were ignorant of Him. They only needed to acknowledge that ignorance and seek Him. Hebrews 11:6 tells us, “And without faith it is impossible to please [Him], for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and [that] He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

Source of Existence (28) -In verse 28 Paul quotes the ancient philosophers to back up his claims.

28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His offspring.’

The fact that man’s existence is in God was recognized by even the Greek poets. The particular Greek poets cited by Paul are Aratus and Epimenides. Epimenides is the same man who six centuries earlier had given the Athenians the advice about how to appease and worship an unknown god.

Now here I have to make a short footnote because there are those that say Paul was wrong to quote the Greek poets and others that attack the veracity (truthfulness) of scripture because he did so. Paul’s quote of these philosophers was not an endorsement of everything they taught. He was simply using it to point out that even the men these Greeks considered wise had reached the same conclusion. If it will help you make your point, you can quote other people favorably even if they are wrong in other areas. Quoting someone is not an endorsement of everything they say. Those who criticize Paul or attack the Bible over this are grasping at the wind and only showing their own ignorance brought on, at least in part, from a failure to ever learn how to actually listen to what someone else says.

Not an Idol (29)

In verse 29, having laid a solid foundation on the nature of the true God as opposed to the gods of the Greek pantheon, Paul directs his attention to correct their idolatry.

29 “Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.

God is not like His creation and therefore cannot be represented by material things of any sort or art or even the thoughts of man. This is in direct contradiction to the practices of these Greeks of either their idolatry, which included fine art, or their philosophies.

Declaring the Requirements of God (30,31)

In verses 30 & 31 Paul declares the requirements of this God that were previously unknown to them.

30 “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, 31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. ”

God had overlooked their ignorance in the past, but that time was ending and God had requirements of man which were now being revealed to them. He commands that all men everywhere repent. They needed to change their minds about what is true and then change their practices accordingly. To fail to do this will leave you under God’s judgement. Paul then directed his argument to the Epicureans who denied any future judgement by proclaiming the proof of it in the resurrection of the one God had appointed to bring this judgement.

This was as far as Paul was able to get before he was interrupted by those that thought themselves wiser than Paul and rejected his claims.

Responses (32-34)

Rejection (32a)

32a Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some [began] to sneer. . .”

It was the mention of the resurrection from the dead that caused these folks to sneer. They began to jest and mock him. That is still a common response by people today that profess themselves to be wise, but they reject the truth and in doing so become fools.

Interest (32b-34)

Others were still curious.

32b . . . but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.” 33 So Paul went out of their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

Some said they would like to hear more. Perhaps they were genuinely curious and did hear Paul again. Then again, they may have just been trying to be polite. However, some others joined Paul as he left and believed. Among these that responded positively that day were two people Paul mentions by name, Dionysius the Areopagite (a philosopher), and a woman named Damaris. They and some other join Paul and believed. They became the nucleus for a church in Athens.

This is kind of response that we should expect when we properly proclaim the gospel. The hearts of men are proud and the natural response for them is to either refuse to acknowledge their sin, as in the case of these Athenian philosophers who would not even acknowledge their responsibility to the true God, or they will continue in their effort to somehow gain forgiveness by their own abilities. They refuse to accept the fact that the only way to receive God’s forgiveness is by His grace through faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. But God is gracious and there are the few that will respond positively and repent to be forgiven their sins and follow Jesus Christ.


There are at least six important lessons about evangelism from Paul’s example while he was in Athens.

1) Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. Paul was and so he was moved to action. Are you praying for the salvation of others? Do you have specific people you are bringing before the Lord by name?

2) Don’t be passive in waiting for opportunities to talk to others about Jesus Christ. You have to be pro-active and put yourself in places where those opportunities can be created.

3) Know something about those you are talking to and adapt your presentation of the gospel accordingly. This means you may need to ask them questions about themselves & what they believe first.

4) Try to find some common ground with the person you are talking to and then bridge the conversation to the truth about God and the claims of Jesus Christ.

5) Don’t directly attack the religion of other people. The goal is to glorify God by declaring His true nature and actions which will always be superior to both false gods and false ideas about the true God. After you have done that, then declare the claims the true God has upon all people.

6) Be faithful and true to do the very best you can to tells others the truth about God and the gospel of Jesus Christ, but leave the results in God’s hands. You cannot argue someone into belief and salvation. You can only point the way. Pray for them.

If you will take these lessons to heart and apply them in your own life, I have no doubt that among the many you talk with you will see God respond in grace and mercy so that some will be saved. What a joy it is to be faithful in serving God and then see Him at work.

Sermon Study Sheets


Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Keep count of how many different times “Paul” is mentioned. 2) Talk with your parents about what Paul said was true about God and how the contrasted with the Greek gods.


Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.

What do you think when you hear the word “evangelist?” What is the difference between marketing Jesus and proclaiming Him? What was Paul’s method in trying to reach a Jewish audience with the gospel? What caused Paul to leave Thessalonica? Berea? What did Paul do when he got to Athens? What was provoking his spirit? Why? What was his response? What was the marketplace in Athens like? Why was this a good place for Paul to go? Who are the Stoics? Who are the Epicureans? What is the Areopagus? What did people do there? Why did Paul go there? What common ground did Paul find with the Athenians? What was the altar to an “Unknown God?” How did Paul use that to introduce his subject? What did Paul say about the character and actions of God? How do those things contrast with the character and actions of the Greek gods? Why does Paul quote Greek poets? What was the responses to Paul’s sermon? What kind of responses should we expect? What did you learn about evangelism from Paul’s example? Are you praying for the salvation of specific people? How can you create opportunities to tell the gospel to others?


Sermon Notes – July 23, 2006

Reaching the Worldly Wise – Acts 17:16-34



Context (17:1-15)


Arrival in Athens (17:16-21)

Provoked by Idols (vs. 16-18)


Invited to the Areopagus (vs. 19-21)


Paul’s Sermon (vs. 22-34)

Careful Introduction (vs. 22-23)



Declaring the Nature of the True God (vs. 24-29)

Creator & Lord (vs. 24)


Autonomous & Source of Life (vs. 25)


Ruler (vs. 26)


Near (vs. 27)


Source of Existence (vs. 28)


Not an Idol (vs. 29)

Declaring God’s Requirements (vs. 30-31)


Responses (vs. 32-34)

Rejection (vs. 32)

Interest (vs. 33-34)


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